High school baseball is king in Columbia County, but the local prep soccer teams are poised to attempt a coup this spring.
Blasphemy! Columbia County baseball teams have piled up state titles over the past three decades, while public high school soccer programs are still seeking the crowning achievement -- a championship.
"Until one of our soccer teams go all the way, you really can't say that," Greenbrier soccer coach Chip Warren said of the prospect of his sport eclipsing the success of baseball in the county.
The tide could be turning.
In baseball, the last time Columbia County squads went all the way was in 1999, when Greenbrier and Augusta Christian both claimed state titles. Harlem made it to the Class AAA finals that year, but lost to Thomasville.
Joey Grigsby (left) and Brian Weinstein battle for the ball during practice at Greenbrier High School. Area schools are starting to show off their talent on the soccer field.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
That also was the year the Wolfpack soccer team fell in the state championship match, which is the closest any county public school squad has come to claiming top honors.
But since 2000, the Lakeside Panthers have notched three straight trips to the Class AAAA state soccer semifinals, which equals the number of state semifinal appearances recorded by all Columbia County baseball teams combined during that same time frame.
"During soccer season, I don't have time to pay attention to baseball," Lakeside boys soccer coach Dave Morgan said when asked if a changing of the guard was imminent in Columbia County.
He has noticed a trend on the pitch.
"The level of play in Columbia County is really rising," Morgan said. "Eventually, one of the soccer teams is going to break through and bring home that first state championship. Hopefully, we'll be the one."
Lakeside isn't alone in that quest. So far, every public school soccer team in Columbia County is making a statement.
The Panthers are ranked No. 4 in the recent Class AAAA poll, and the Wolfpack checked in at No. 8. In the girl's rankings, Lakeside was No. 5, while Greenbrier was No. 9.
High school soccer teams from the Atlanta area have traditionally dominated every Georgia High School Association classification, but at least Columbia County is closing the gap.
Greenbrier High School soccer coach Chip Warren talks to Todd Mulder during practice after school.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"I can't remember a time when the county had more ranked teams," Morgan said. "A lot of kids are playing soccer right now. There are more talented players all the way around."
The Greenbrier and Lakeside soccer teams are accustomed to Top-10 rankings, but there was a surprise in last week's Class AAA poll -- the Harlem Lady Bulldogs debuted at No. 10.
"I'll be honest. I'm having to learn how to coach a team with so many skilled players," said George Berry, who has coached the Harlem boys for the past seven seasons and has taken over the Lady Dogs this year.
Berry and the Harlem boys qualified for the 2002 Class AAA state playoffs. This season the GHSA has changed the state soccer format, doubling the number of Class AAA teams from each region that qualify for the tournament.
With four teams in Region 3-AAA earning playoff bids in 2003, both Harlem teams are a lock for the postseason.
Still, that might be a mere afterthought for the Harlem girls -- with wins over region foes Westside and Richmond Academy already this season, the Lady Dogs are positioned to claim their first-ever region title.
The girls and boys teams at Lakeside and Greenbrier are expected to finish one-two in Region 3-AAAA, with the pecking order to be decided by the March 28 matches at Panther Stadium.
The Evans Knights and Lady Knights are off to solid starts in soccer, and although neither is ranked in Class AAAAA, both have enough weapons to make a run at the Region 7-AAAAA titles.
"I've got an experienced team, and all the players are good enough to get playing time," Knights coach Brian Killips said. "I had a rare problem this year. We had close to 70 kids try out, and I had to cut kids with talent."
Through Wednesday, Columbia County soccer teams had a combined record of 25-6-1, and five squads were unbeaten: the Lady Dogs (5-0); the Greenbrier boys (4-0) and girls (1-0-1); and, the Lakeside boys (3-0) and girls (4-0-1). The Harlem boys stood 4-1, with the only loss coming to Richmond Academy, which is ranked No. 3 in Class AAA.
A host of players, from freshmen to seniors, have sparked the early-season soccer surge, but the hottest start has been turned in by Joey Grigsby. The Greenbrier senior tallied 14 goals through four matches, and has been a dominant offensive force at his midfield position.
Although the Pack has faced some weak teams, that's no slight to Grigsby's onslaught, which included a pair of five-goal matches.
The influx of soccer talent at the high school level is mainly because of the grass-roots growth of the sport locally. The select soccer programs, the Augusta Arsenal Gunners and Columbia County Patriots, have helped set the stage for prep success.
"Players are coming in with more skills. It's nothing I've taught them," Coach Berry said. "Parents are taking time to take their kids to rec practice, and they are making sacrifices so their kids can play club ball. That's the difference."
And that's also the reason why baseball, the king of Columbia County, might have to share the throne in the near future.
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